It seems that you can't always believe what you see in cyberspace. This morning's Wall Street Journal details how last week's signing of YouTube star Marie Digby by Disney's (NYSE: DIS ) Hollywood Records was actually the culmination of a carefully orchestrated online marketing strategy. See, the label actually signed Digby two years ago. Her debut album was recorded last year, but the label wasn't in a hurry to release it without stirring up a little buzz first.
The CD market is tricky even with established recording stars, much less with a virtual unknown. So earlier this year, Disney furnished Digby with an i-Movie-stocked Mac and a plan. From home, she would record acoustic covers of well-known songs, post them on Google's (Nasdaq: GOOG ) YouTube, and let the court of viral video opinion dictate her fate.
It worked. After three months and 17 videos that have had her covering everyone from Incubus to Linkin Park, Digby is a YouTube sensation. With more than 11,000 subscribers to her channel, she's No. 25 on the list of most popular musicians. That finds her topping the likes of Weird Al Yankovic and fellow Hollywood Records recording star Hilary Duff.
If you can't Barnum, burn 'em
Digby isn't happy, though. Her latest MySpace blog entry rips into Journal reporters Ethan Smith and Peter Lattman for cherry-picking quotes out of context and making her out to be the next scripted incarnation of Lonelygirl15.
"The guy's angle is this: that I am a complete phony and fake and a pawn of my record label in some brilliant marketing scheme," she fumes. "Is this guy completely insane?"
Digby eventually cools down and accepts that it's her "first taste of what media might be like." Once she cools down even more, I think she may come to actually appreciate being the subject of a front-page story in a major publication. With a digital EP due out next week, and her cover of Rihanna's "Umbrella" selling brisky on Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes, even bad publicity can be good publicity.
And who said this is bad publicity, anyway?
The Journal piece isn't exactly negative. It does credit Disney's marketing muscle with bankrolling her studio recordings, getting her on the radio, and booking her on Carson Daly's show. It notes that her label consulted with her on the strategy to post mostly cover songs as a way to get her noticed on the site, but Digby picked the songs and recorded the videos herself.
Obviously, you don't even get signed to a major label if you don't have talent, and Digby has been winning over a fan base by playing live shows for years. Her presence on News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) MySpace dates all the way back to 2004, with fans gushing over her "Miss Invisible" song, months before she turned heads at Disney.
She's the real deal, though she may want to temper her media venom in the future. Calling reporters schmucks and losers isn't all that endearing, especially when it's belted out in a blog rant that is devoid of her velvety smooth vocal stylings.
I'm going to Disneyland
Digby's frustration isn't entirely unfounded. Check out the comments this morning for her YouTube videos, or even on some fan sites, and you see clashes between her fans and those calling her out as the next Milli Vanilli.
It's a ludicrous knock. Digby is the architect of her own success. Her video victories would have never materialized if her acoustic recordings hadn't risen to the top through the finicky filtering that's at the very heart of YouTube's democratization process.
We may never know whether there would have been a little anti-corporate bias if she'd presented herself as a signed artist, but musical appreciation is something that defies both figurative and literal labels.
"I have so many dear friends who were signed to the biggest record labels in the world, made amazing albums, and were DROPPED," she writes in her Journal-thumping blog entry. "I knew that if I didn't do something, that I would end up like my friends."
Digby's position isn't unusual. Major labels often stockpile talent, by signing acts to major deals without ever getting around to releasing their music. It's often a tactical move. I know it. I've lived through it. My band was signed by Sony's Columbia Records in 1987. We collected cobwebs for two years, until a music executive friend of ours from Arista came over and finally got things going. After a pair of Billboard-charting dance singles, we were let go in 1990.
Digby did the right thing. The incubatory process for a young artist can be stifling. The Internet and the popularity of inventory-free, CD-free digital distribution -- which, according to Apple's Steve Jobs, accounted for 32% of all of last year's releases -- are tools to be used by up-and-coming artists. So don't take this moment away from Digby. She earned it.
However, it's also another nod to Disney's growing role as a music-industry juggernaut. A few years ago, Disney's fledgling label was banking on acts such as Fastball, SHeDAISY, and a Queen revival to make ends meet. These days, it's the belle of the Billboard ball.
As major labels such as Sony (NYSE: SNE ) and Warner (NYSE: WMG ) suffer with CD-sale declines that are being only partially offset by digital-music gains, Disney is cleaning house. It's now cashing in on its Disney Channel muscle to give birth to recording stars. Beyond the runaway success of High School Musical, two different Hannah Montana CDs have hit the top spot on Billboard this year. From Raven Simone's Cheetah Girls to giving the Jonas Brothers a second shot at stardom, Disney is a resounding force in the earbuds of our young.
The only puzzle piece that remains to be placed is whether Disney will give Digby her own show, feature her prominently on a hit Disney Channel show, or use her interactive world's claim to fame as the launch pad for a reality series to showcase even more emerging musical artists.
Either way, Digby can put away that umbrella. If anything is raining down, it's opportunity.
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